Most nutrition experts agree that we should be eating more legumes. These wholesome plant-based foods are packed with protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, have almost no saturated fat, and zero cholesterol.
The Heart Foundation is just one of the many health authorities that’s tried to persuade us to eat more legumes. Legumes:
May reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease
Are inexpensive and easy to keep in the pantry
Work in a ton of different recipes
Might help the health of your microbiome
Are easy to incorporate into different diets, like vegan or gluten-free
Are better for the environment than other protein sources
Given all these health benefits, it should be no surprise that legumes are considered especially beneficial for people with diabetes. Everyday Health called beans and lentils “diabetes superfoods,” because they are “associated with improved blood glucose control, reduced blood pressure, and lower cholesterol and triglyceride (fat found in the blood) levels in people with type 2 diabetes.”
The only problem? We’re not eating enough of them. These nutritional powerhouses are decidedly not part of mainstream American diets. On any given day, very few Americans eat legumes.
Even so, it should be easy to work more beans and other legumes into your diet. Legumes include all sorts of canned and dried beans and lentils, fresh or frozen peas and green beans, soybeans, and even peanuts.
Legumes and Blood Sugar
Legumes do contain carbohydrates, which means that they can still lead to blood sugar spikes. If you use insulin before meals, you’ll almost certainly need to count the carbs (or net carbs) in legumes and dose accordingly.
But as far as carbohydrate sources go, you can hardly find healthier options, especially if they’re replacing sugars, refined starches, or ultra-processed foods. Legumes are very low on the glycemic index. They have a high fiber content, which slows digestion, resulting in lower blood sugar spikes after meals. A 2012 investigation found that when 121 adults with type 2 diabetes switched to a legume-heavy diet, their A1C dropped by an average of 0.5 percent. Their cardiovascular risks dropped, too.
Many people with diabetes choose to manage their condition with a low-carbohydrate diet, and have therefore decided to eat very few legumes, or none at all. The approach makes a lot of sense. The American Diabetes Association agrees that carbohydrate restriction is the single best way to lower blood sugar levels. But there are even options for extreme low-carb dieters.
Very Low-Carb Options
For committed low-carb eaters, there are some more obscure options with astonishingly low carbohydrate counts.
Black soybeans come canned from a supplier named Eden. Supposedly “the crown prince of beans” in Japan, these beans have very high amounts of protein and fiber. They can be substituted for regular beans in many recipes, like burritos and salads, though it should be noted that they have a less creamy texture.
Lupini beans have almost zero net carbohydrates at all. They’re typically sold lightly salted in brine and eaten as a snack. They’ve been popular around the Mediterranean for centuries, but have only recently made their way into specialty food stores and fancy groceries elsewhere. Lupini beans are a finger food, and are not easily substituted into recipes that call for other legumes.
Finally, fresh green legumes like edamame (steamed soybeans), peas, and green beans are outstanding options for any “well-formulated ketogenic diet.”
Peanuts are an unusual legume. We usually eat them roasted, not boiled. They’re dense and crunchy, and they have more fat than other legumes. They contain very little water.
As a result, peanuts have a heck of a lot more calories than other ingredients in the category — per gram, about five times as many calories.
Peanut butter is similar — it’s delicious, it’s got fiber and protein, but it’s remarkably calorically dense, and it’s easy to get carried away and eat too much of it. Though sometimes oils and sugars are added to peanut butter to improve the flavor and texture, peanut butter is still mostly just ground peanuts. Choosing a “natural” variety is your best bet for avoiding added sugar.
Beware flavored peanuts that are excessively sweet. Honey-roasted peanuts can make for a nice snack, certainly a healthier one than most junk foods, but you can easily find yourself eating more sugar, fat, and calories than you intended.
Nutrition Facts for Legumes at a Glance
When possible, data is from the USDA nutrient database, per 100 grams — about one-quarter of a standard 16-ounce can of beans.
Which Legume Is Healthiest?
The truth is that there isn’t a huge difference between most lentils, chickpeas, and beans. Dried lentils are the quickest to cook from scratch, but canned beans are a great option and are ready to eat instantly. In reality, the best legume is the one that you like the most — the one that you can incorporate into your diet in a sustainable way.
If you’re really trying to cut your carb consumption down, try black soybeans in place of pinto, kidney, or black beans in traditional recipes. They have an unbeatable carbohydrate to fiber ratio.
Looking for a new healthy snack? Consider edamame or lupini beans, which have a ton of fiber and protein and very few net carbs.
Peanuts and peanut butter are fine snacks, but it pays to be cautious with them, because they are calorically-dense and shockingly easy to overeat.
All legumes offer slightly different nutritional and flavor profiles, and they’re all healthy in their own ways. Try to make eating a variety of legumes one of your new dining and snacking habits.